Khao Phra Taew – the last rainforest on Phuket Island

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Where has all of Phuket's original rainforest gone?

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Phuket island still looks quite green from most vantage points, however little of that green is natural. The island is one vast plantation of rubber and oil palm, with just snippets of natural forest surviving on the steepest slopes of mountains. None of the beaches has any rainforest left at all, though many are lined by natural shoreline trees, including pandanus and casuarina. Any true beachfront resort here claiming to have 'jungle' or 'rainforest' will surely have planted it themselves.
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Khao (mountain) Phra Taew in Phuket's northeast has the only remaining rainforest of any size on the island, and is now protected as a National Park. It is ten kilometres long, and four at its widest, but with only 22 sq kilometres is only a tiny fraction of the total land area of Phuket, and not big enough for any large wild animals to survive in.
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Access from northern beaches including Mai Khao Beach , Bang Tao Beach , Kamala Beach and the northeast around Ao Po is easy.
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Khao Phra Taew is also known for the small waterfall there, one that flows only in rainy weather. Thai culture has a love affair with waterfalls, something akin to the Western passion for palm-fringed, tropical beaches. On weekends Thais come here to picnic and sit right under the cascading water.
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The most fascinating thing to do here, though, is to walk one of the two forest paths through the rainforest that the National Parks maintains. There is a short 600 metre walk, and an especially beautiful two kilometre track. The longer track is not particularly arduous, though perhaps too much for those who are grossly overweight, very old or otherwise unhealthy. Children from about six or seven year could easily handle the track, and could gain a lot of knowledge from it.
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two great walking trails through an exquisite rainforest

The short 600 metre walk through the Khao Phra Taew's rainforest will be enough for most people. And indeed they will get a glimpse of a natural world that has been so thoroughly destroyed on Phuket it is difficult to imagine without coming to see. Both the short and long walking tracks start by following the small stream that creates the waterfall. You have to do some scrambling over rocks, and get the feet wet from time to time. While the track might not be as well built as many National Parks walks in countries like Australia and the USA, it is still quite adequate.
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The full beauty of this forest is not discovered, however, unless you take the longer of the tracks, and venture a little higher up the stream-cum-track. The thick mix of big trees, vines, brushes, bamboos and palms locks out the sun as you delve into a semi-dark world in which the track is sometimes difficult to see. It's not for those who are old and infirm on their feet. There are occasional breaks in the canopy where the track crosses the stream, providing a wider view of the forest in sunlight.
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As we climb this track up the mountain we find ourselves moving into and through a number of different floral worlds. Once up there we really understand the value of taking the longer of the two tracks.
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to follow that trail, follow that stream deeper into the rainforest

The track scrambles along, following the bed of the small stream. If it has not rained recently this will be dry. Walking this trail is a great monsoon season activity, for during the wet months the vegetation explodes into lush abundance, the fungi bloom and an a weird, colourful world insect life emerges.
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Sometimes it feels like your are on a 'hash' run, with the leaders wondering where the trail goes next. But here, after some uncertainty you realize that when no cut trail is evident, follow the river bed. While this track holds no footprints, reassurance soon arrives in the form of another information and rest station.
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When deep in the rainforest those moments without the certainly of a man-made track can raise the heartbeat. This makes a great 'soft adventure' for kids. Also, be prepared to crawl through thick patches when large trees have fallen, and the trail has only been partially cleared.
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trekking high into Khao Phra Taew's heart of palms

Well up the mountainside the trail emerges from the deep shade of huge trees and high canopy into a brighter forest of the beautiful and rare 'lang khao' palm, or white-backed palm, (kerriodoxa elegans). The palm produces broad leaf-fans of exquisite form, but the real impact comes from walking under a complete canopy of them, with sunlight creating dazzling shadow patterns as it strikes leaves and filters between them.
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Here is one of the highlights of the walk, a reward that justifies the effort needed on the longer trail.
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This beautiful palm is endemic to the Phuket region. While it has a leaf shape found in other parts of the world, the backside of the leaf has a white furry covering. At certain angles the light reflects to make these undersides entirely white. Though found only in forests covering a small area of the Thai peninsula adjacent to Phuket, the palm is now propagated by discerning gardening circles, and can be bought in nurseries in Phuket. A nice patch of them can also be seen at the entry to Tung-ka Cafe on Rang Hill in Phuket Town.
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deep in Phuket's last rainforest – info stations along the way

The two kilometre track reaches deep into the heart of the rainforest, taking trekkers through a variety of different forest environments, and displaying just how stunningly beautiful the rainforests that once covered all of southern Thailand really were.
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To help visitors get real value from their rainforest trek the National Parks department has set up 13 rest and information stations along the way to highlight the changing patterns of flora. Those stations each have a specific name to reflect the plant life and happenings nearby, and include fungi, palms, bamboo, granite rock, decomposition, etc. At each station a board provided information in Thai and English on the relevant topic, and though quite basic, this info makes excellent tutorials for children – and for many urban adults with little understanding of the forest.
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The National Parks signs suggest many animals lurk here, but it is doubtful that some they list, including gibbons, wild boar and deer, still exist here. The hunting pressure has been too severe over too many years, with virtually all animals having been killed and eaten long ago – as they have been through most of the remaining forests in Thailand.
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look carefully; lots of little forest creatures along the way

Many of the most interesting natural phenomena, including flora, bugs and animals in the rainforest, are microscopic, or small enough to avoid detection by most passing eyes. Those who walk the forest slowly, with hawk eyes scouring all corners, bright and dark, will surely be rewarded. All photos in this essay were taken on a single two-hour passage over the longer trail in May, at the beginning of the monsoon season when only a little rain had fallen. After some more weeks of rain you could expect a small explosion of fungi and other interesting plants.
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Forest orchids can be seen, but most are high up and you have to be lucky to catch them in bloom. That usually takes place in March and April in Thailand. This country has a huge variety of both native and cultured orchids, with a stunning array of orchid blooms to be seen in orchid farms and private collections.
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Do be aware of the pitfalls of wandering off the track into the forest of Khao Phra Taew. With the camera in command, this photographer was led off the track into the brush several times to catch elusive flowers or beams of light – and returned with legs seeping blood and suffering an intense itch from the burns of a stringing tree. On a couple of occasions angry black ants swarmed through my sandals, sinking fags into toes. But the good news? There were no leeches - on that trip.
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finally, way up there, the bamboo forest and a quick way out

The trail leaves the exquisitely beautiful forest of palms and immediately moves into a new world dominated by bamboo. Once again the thin, towering stalks rush for the sunlight, catching it high above with leafy heads that glow brilliantly, providing all small creatures below, humans included, the light they need to see and weave their way across the gloom of the forest floor. Isn't this what ants do when making their way through the smaller cousins of bamboo that we grow on our lawns?
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Through the bamboo forest, the trail follows the stream bed a bit further up the mountain before making a short jump onto a ridge line. But for the thick forest enveloping us, there would surely be magnificent views out over Phuket. But it's semi dark here. Moving down the ridge we are provided a stairway created by the crossing of tree roots. The trail then breaks onto a larger trail that was once a road. Bamboo arches in from both sides, still blocking the sun. But it creates a pleasantly shaded alleyway... and an easy trek down the mountain.
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It might take an hour to climb up the mountain trail – assuming one stops enough to smell the fungi along the way. But the return trip down bamboo alley might take just 15 minutes.
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As suggested, trekking a rainforest trail like this will always be most interesting once the rains of the monsoon season have begun. However, this will not be possible for the many who arrive during the high season, and I still recommend this as a great outing while on Phuket. It provides a unique view into entirely different world, and the past.
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Foreigners pay Baht 400 for entry to Khao PhraTaew (and to all National Parks in Thailand). If walking this trail, you will certainly get value for money.
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by John Everingham
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